Atwater Kent and Temple in talks to merge or partner

The Philadelphia History Museum, the city’s institutional attic of art and artifacts previously known as the Atwater Kent museum, has entered into talks with Temple University about a possible merger or partnership, according to city and museum officials.

“We are in discussions with Temple,” Charles Croce, museum executive director and chief executive, said Tuesday. “It would form a very interesting umbrella.”

Croce emphasized that “nothing has been signed, but there’s great interest” on both sides of the talks.

Joe Lucia, dean of Temple University libraries, said the university has a strong interest in connecting its massive Urban Archives, which cover the city’s history from the mid-19th century to the present, with the history museum’s artifacts and paintings from roughly the same period.

“Can we align those” histories? Lucia wondered Tuesday. “In the 21st century environment, how do you reinvent the museum?”

He sees the possibility of a partnership with the history museum as opening up new ways of “understanding the urban environment and understanding the Philadelphia environment.”

Talks have been going on for over a year but have recently taken on a “more formal” tone, Lucia said.

In 2015, the history museum entered into similar discussions with Woodmere Art Museum. But those talks eventually were shelved.

This time around, the city, which owns the museum building on South Seventh Street just off Market Street, gave a major nudge to the museum. In October, the managing director’s office issued a request for proposals seeking a project manager to work up a “financially sustainable plan” for the museum, including a possible merger with another institution or even “taking steps to dissolve the organization.”

Museum officials, Croce said, successfully argued that they were already being assisted by a consultant, TDC, a Boston firm hired to help with the Woodmere planning.

“A strategic partnership and closure were options to be explored at the time when the RFP was written,” city cultural officer Kelly Lee wrote in an email Tuesday. “The PHM board, the city and TDC all agreed that [the museum’s] current business model was not working, and the [museum] did not generate enough revenue to sustain operations.”

Kelly said that the museum “plays a unique role in the cultural fabric of Philadelphia” and that “closure would have been the option of last resort.”

The museum, mandated by the city charter as the official repository of Philadelphia’s “material culture,” was at one time relatively well supported by city funds. But since Philadelphia’s near bankruptcy in the early 1990s, its museum subsidy has dwindled to the current level of roughly $300,000, annually.

The city also covers costs of maintaining the 1826 Greek Revival building, which was home of the Franklin Institute for more than a century.

The museum owns the “material culture” collection, which includes iconic items such as George Washington’s writing desk and Mike Schmidt’s batting helmet. Many of its artworks were given to the Atwater Kent by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the 1990s when HSP transformed itself into a library and archive only.

The museum now houses more than 100,000 objects in off-site storage, a huge amount given the museum’s small staff (there are seven full-time staffers) and minuscule financial resources.

Croce wondered, “How many objects do you need to tell Philadelphia’s story effectively?”

The enormous size of the collection is one area that the museum and Temple have discussed.

Croce wants to “assemble a team of experts … to help us evaluate the collection” with an eye toward divesting duplicates and non-relevant artifacts.

“The idea is to cull the collection, not to sell it off,” he said.

Such selling can easily teeter into controversy, as Croce well knows. A previous executive director paid off a costly renovation project in part through collection sales — and was widely criticized for it.

Most professional museum codes sanction sales only to benefit a museum’s collection, not installation of new air-conditioning.

Croce said that such types of sales are not in the cards.

Lee, the city’s cultural officer, said that, at least as of now, “We are all confident that PHM closing is off the table, and are all excited and hopeful about the partnership and what it could mean for the PHM.”